Judith Fagelson

Why did you go to Samara, Russia?

I did my BA in French and Russian. In the UK, all language students spend their third year abroad. I was torn between France and Russia, so I made a promise to myself that wherever I went during my third year, I would go to the other country the year after graduating. While on my year abroad in France, I met a German girl doing the European Voluntary Service there. She told me all about it, and I decided that I would apply for EVS in Russia after graduation. I didn’t really much mind where in Russia I went, as long as it wasn’t Moscow or St Petersburg. So I applied in a few different cities, and was accepted in Samara. The rest is history!

Tell us about your project

I worked in Lastochki’s office, which was interesting, as I was able to get a clearer idea of the logistics behind running international voluntary projects, but at the same time was able to help out at all the other projects. So, for example, in a typical week at the office, I might interview some potential volunteers for next year’s cohort via Skype; look online for interesting cultural events in and around Samara to publicise to the volunteers; visit one or two potential host families; not to mention answering a few queries from volunteers facing difficulties. But I also got to do more hands-on activities like attending the Maccabi kindergarten’s Passover celebrations and interpreting for a volunteer at Parus Nadezhdy while she ran a psychology session for adults with learning disabilities. I also got to work on some really interesting one-off projects, like an assessment of the impact that international volunteers have on their projects, or a Russian phrasebook for newly-arrived volunteers.

What was your biggest challenge being a volunteer?

I found it quite difficult to settle into my project at first. The volunteers in the office are expected to act as a point of contact for other international volunteers in Samara, which was really hard when I was new and a bit lost myself. So, for example, in my first week in Samara, I was sent to visit a potential host family for a new volunteer, and didn’t know how to answer their questions about hosting volunteers. Likewise, I had to take a new volunteer on a tour of Samara when I myself had only arrived three weeks before and would have really liked someone to show me! Tasks like this were really challenging when I was new to the city and to Lastochki, but by the time I left in August, they felt like second nature.

What did you like the most with being a volunteer?

Definitely the people you meet! Samara has a really active circle of volunteers – both Russian and international – and as an EVS, STePs or ICYE volunteer you will definitely be meeting some of the most interesting and intelligent people in the city. What’s more, the Samara region’s a fascinating place, situated in between Kazakhstan and Tartarstan. The city is really diverse, with active Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Lutheran communities. I’ve travelled quite a bit in Russia, but rarely have I seen a city as multi-cultural as Samara. Plus, it is surrounded by beautiful countryside – all you have to do is take a 20 minute boat across the Volga and you’re out in the country. In summer I went hiking in the nearby hills almost every weekend, and in the winter I learnt to snowboard (or rather, repeatedly fell over while strapped into a snowboard).

Would you recommend volunteering in Samara to someone else?

I think volunteering in Samara can be great, but it doesn’t suit everybody. Samara can be quite a tough city to live in, and I would certainly recommend learning at least a bit of Russia before you go. Although there is quite a large international community, locals aren’t always used to meeting foreigners and I was twice told off on public transport for speaking English. The infrastructure leaves something to be desired (although the city is undergoing major works ahead of the 2018 world cup) and it can take hours to travel just a few miles. That said, the city has so much else to offer – really diverse, challenging voluntary projects, a fantastic cultural programme (lots of theatre, art exhibitions, concerts, free cultural classes and workshops), and lots of outdoor sport opportunities. While I was there, I joined a choir, a hiking club, and learnt African drumming. I was certainly never at a loss for things to do – more often, I was torn because I had so many things to choose between. If you’re looking to have a nice, easy time, then volunteering in Samara might not be for you. But if you want to go somewhere a little bit off the beaten path, you’re willing to work hard both at your project and outside of it to integrate into the local community, and you want to see a side of Russia that you wouldn’t see as a tourist, then definitely consider Samara.